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Ant Parenting

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Created: 11/2/2012      Updated: 8/10/2016

What do oil, humidity, and Hibiscus plants have in common? Turns out they may be part of the keys to success with one of our latest additions to the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum. As the Living Invertebrate Specialist it is my job to make sure our adopted leaf cutter ant colony thrives in their new home. While they are currently making their debut in the Backyard Monsters Exhibit running through January 22, 2013, they will become a permanent part of our exhibits after that, so this is a long-term commitment.

Who knew that caring for a bunch of ants would take me back to caring for my own children? Thankfully the later are grown and successfully on their way so I no longer have to worry about their every need on a daily basis. Instead I’ve been worrying about a colony of highly developed, highly active, highly demanding ants.

I recently spent a week with the ultimate ant “parenting” support group at the Cincinnati zoo where colonies of countless kinds of ants from around the world have been maintained and displayed for over 25 years.  Randy Morgan and his staff are like a living version of “What to Expect When You’re Expecting”, or “Dr. Spock” for first time ant parents.

  • Leaf cuttings

    Lots of leaf cuttings by one of the largest Cincinnati  Zoo colonies. We hope our girls can make this big of a mess someday.

  • Garden fungus

    This is what a happy fungus garden looks like.  You can see the ants, ready to protect their handiwork.

  • Working with ants

    Winton from the Cincinnati Zoo demonstrates how to get them to start expanding the gardens.  You may notice, he’s bleeding from his finger.  They’re not afraid to use those mouthparts for defense!

So what do oil, humidity, and Hibiscus plants have to do with all that? Well, a barrier of oil helps to keep them where we need them to stay, humidity is critical to the health of the fungus gardens they depend on, and Hibiscus plants may be one of the best sources of leaves in the winter when we have to provide for them by growing indoor plants. We have had quite a time finding leaves they will happily cut and use so this is no small challenge. 

I'll share more about the incredible relationship the colony has with the fungus, the leaves, and each other as we progress but in the meantime, I look forward to moving beyond my own toddler stage with our ants and enjoying a more mature relationship. 

I hope you’ll get a kick out of watching the colony grow and letting them teach you a thing or two as well. 

Karen Kramer Wilson, Living Invertebrate Specialist

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